There have always been classes as far as human societies go, a ruling class, a priestly class, the scribes, the workmen, the artisans, the peasants and the slaves. Perhaps the Solon’s and Cleisthenes’s Greece was the only exception insofar as public officials were elected by the casting of lots, the term of office not to exceed one year; and in that respect, everyone was equal. Of course we must make an allowance here for the existence of slaves, which made the entire enterprise we call “direct democracy” not only possible but suspect as well.
“It was the economic necessity, someone always had to work in order to provide another person with their leisure, the least of which being, tending to the affairs of the state,” so says the conventional wisdom. “It’s preordained,” so we’re told.
So how are we to free ourselves, in that case, from this age-old pattern, this troublesome meme which appears so engraved in our hearts and minds that we can’t seem to think beyond taking advantage of others as a way of securing our own freedoms? And how are we do this in this land called America, once conceived as the Great Experiment but which, as a matter of fact, presents the greatest obstacle ever because the premises were all wrong? How are we to do this when individual rights end up masquerading as our freedoms and the rule of law – that unique expression of the will (or mere acquiescence, as the case may be, on the part of) the ruling class – as (distributive) justice?
If you’re looking for philosophical underpinnings which ground these conclusions, you’ll do well to give a cursory look at Charles Taylor’s article, “The Nature and Scope of Distributive Justice,” in Philosophy and The Human Sciences, Philosophical Papers 2 (see the featured selection). Meanwhile, if you’re looking to practical solutions, I can’t improve on Marx’s definition of class, bourgeois edition, which ties the concept to the ownership of the means of production: until the producers have full control over the disposition of their product, there’ll never be a classless society. And assuming now that a classless society is a desideratum for any democratic society worthy of its name, a condition whereby only meritocracy rules, whereas birth, rank or privilege are of no account, this ought to be our greatest aspiration.
The Ehrenreichs open their provocative article with a quote from E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class:
Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.
It’s a fairly straightforward definition, no doubt about it. I hasten to add, however, it hasn’t happened yet. We’ve got a long way to go.